We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, July 31, 2017

Matthew 3:1-3

We live in three dimensions.  We are spatial, geographical creatures to our very core.  This is obviously true physically.  We "come".  We "go".  Every time we take a step, we are travelling—if only to go to the kitchen or the bathroom.  We also think spatially as well.  We "look up" to someone even if they are shorter than we are.  We describe our lives as being "a journey" that we are on.  Like the air we breathe, three-dimensional-ness is so much a part of our reality that we don't even notice it as such.  It is just "there".

These opening verses of Matthew 3 are a reminder that we also think of God geographically as well.  John proclaimed, "Turn away!"  Basically, we are called on to turn our lives around and head in a new direction.  He proclaimed, "God's Kingdom is near!"  Does that mean that God has a place where God lives?  It seems a silly question if God is the creator of the totality of the universe, because so far as we know the universe encompasses all of our reality, all of our spaces.  God is somehow Beyond time and space.  We can't even say that God is nowhere because "nowhere" is still a geographical/spatial term.

But in Matthew 3 we're told that God's Kingdom is close, apparently very close.  So, God's Kingdom is not nowhere?  It is "somewhere"?  It exists in time & space?  Most Christians would say that God is obviously in God's Kingdom, which we usually think of simply as Heaven.  God is in Heaven.  In ancient times, they literally thought of Heaven as being above the sky.  On top of all of this, John quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying that God has a road, which God travels, a road that the faithful prepare for God.

We have two seemingly contradictory things going on here.  On the one hand, there is nothing we can say about where God "is" because God isn't even a "being".  God doesn't occupy space or take up time.  On the other hand, we believe that God the Spirit is present with us; and the Bible uses three-dimensional, geographical images to describe that presence.  Is the Bible, then, just a silly attempt at doing what can't be done, i.e. talking about the presence of Something that by definition cannot be present?  No, it isn't.  Biblical images and its geographical language are valid for us so long as we remember that they are not literal.  All of our language about God, indeed, is made up of "tropes," that is words and images that are non-literal.  Even the claim that God was in Jesus of Nazareth, even the sense we express that the Spirit is moving in our lives or in our hearts—even these are tropes, non-literal ways of speaking about That, which cannot be spoken of literally.

It has to be this way.  Any time we think our words and images about God are literally true, we are trying to force God to fit into our little time and space reality.  We are trying to turn God an idol, make God over in our own three-dimensional image.  God is Beyond.  That's all we can say, and even that simple little sentence is a trope.  What we are left with is faith.  Amen.